10 Things Stranger Things Taught Me About Storytelling
OMG YOU GUYS I just finished Stranger Things. I know, I know, I’m slow, I’m late, I’m sorry. (I can’t binge watch TV anymore, much as I’d like to. Having a writing career + a five-year-old + some vague attempt at doing something other than sitting on my boot-ox means I can’t Hoover up a whole TV season into my brain over a weekend.)
The review is: I liked it. A lot. Maybe even loved it a little. It’s not without flaws, mind you. I thought what would be better than a review would be one of those posts where I dissect the thing a little bit, and talk about what might be some interesting takeaways for writers and storytellers.
SO LET’S DO THIS.
*loads up the wrist rocket*
*eats some Eggo waffles*
*summons the Demogorgon*
(Oh, real quick, some of this will feature vague, generic spoilers. I won’t spoil plot details, exactly, but some of what I discuss gives a shape of the show and the events that unspool within it.)
1. Creating empathy and redemption for characters you hate is fucking awesome and you should do it. Example: Steve. Fucking Steve. You watch the show, you hate Steve. You want Steve to get his salad tossed by the Demogorgon. And then, the show does this thing where it’s like, HEY, MAYBE STEVE IS A SHITHEAD BUT NOT A TOTAL SHITHEAD OH DAMN DID STEVE JUST REDEEM HIMSELF? The secondary lesson here is, to surprise the audience you don’t necessarily need some tricky turny plot twist. You can surprise the audience by revealing more of a character — by making them more than the trope. The Steve trope is that he’s every 1980s well-coiffed rich kid bully, but the show gives you more. I don’t know that it rounds him out in a really big way, but it’s a nice turn and it shows that subverting expectations and tropes can be a turn all its own — and one that’s more organic than most shitty plot twists. But here’s one of the interesting tricks to making an unlikable (or at least not-so-easy-to-like) character work: make them an underdog. Joyce is not exactly the most commendable mother up front, but we like her because she’s down on her luck. Hopper is a cop besieged by demons and he’s a brusque, blunt asshole — but again, we’re looking at an underdog, here. Ah, but Steve isn’t an underdog, and so we hate him — until later, when he becomes an underdog and suddenly we like him more, don’t we?
2. But, on the other side of the equation, if you decide to create one of those mustache-twisting villains — you know, a Palpatine who is evil because, I dunno, evil is cool, basically? — then you need to give them a suitable send-off. The show gives us a one-dimensional villain, then never really does anything interesting with it. And that character’s demise is so quick and so hasty it fails to give us the one thing you can really get from such an unsophisticated villain: the satisfaction of a just and righteous end.
3. The show does a lot of good with character agency, by which I mean, it is characters who create problems, who escalate the problems, and who inevitably complicate and then fix the problems. Characters want things, and in pursuit of those things, they fuck up and fail and then succeed as heroes. They push the plot. The plot doesn’t push them. Except…
4. The show occasionally drops out of this mode and then has characters act outside themselves to service the plot. They betray their own emotional intelligence, their own logic, and they do this in order to perform actions that seem necessary to move the plot along. (Example: two characters are out monster hunting, and one randomly disappears and doesn’t answer the other one yelling, and then that other one decides to just, oh, I dunno, crawl into a tree stump because sure, that seems like a good idea. Another example: a protagonist near the end commits an odd, out-of-character betrayal for no other reason than to tidy up the plot and create conflict.) Problem is, when the show does so right by its characters that when it does wrong? It is keenly, almost painfully felt. It is a break in the consistency and constancy of these characters.
5. Similar is true for how the show handles some of its women characters. It handles some of them, like Joyce, so well that when it totally fails Barb, boy howdy is that a glaring issue. It’s like running your thumb along a smooth wooden railing and then — AMBUSH SPLINTER.
6. A lot of TV shows would milk the story for as many episodes as it can. This one is a lean eight episodes, and it works. (Hell, I could’ve taken another 1-2 episodes.) It’s a good example to keep it trim, tight, tell the story using as few narrative building blocks as you can muster.
7. A novel translates best to television format, if you’re concerned about moving one to the other. A novel doesn’t fit well with a film — novels are stories in big, roomy containers. Shoving them into a movie format isn’t impossible, but it’s like trying to squeeze into your Prom Tux twenty years later. You’ve got too much history around your middle and trying to strain into a pair of powder blue suit pants is a good way to rip a seam in shame. Stranger Things — though not based on a novel! — is almost literally a novel in TV format. Episodes translate well to chapters, and each gets a name as in a horror novel. It feels in this way nostalgic not really to the 1980s, but more to the horror novels (even moreso than the films) of the 1980s. It captures the aesthetics of those movies, but it seizes on the narrative of the novels of that decade.
8. Everything is a remix, and that’s okay. Stranger Things leans into this harder than most, and wears its influences (Poltergeist! Stephen King! The Stand! The Goonies! Pretty much any sci-fi/horror film from the 1980s!) right there on its sleeve. It proves that it’s less about how original you are and more about how you rearrange the puzzle pieces to show a different image.
9. FUCK YEAH ROLEPLAYING GAMES. You wanna learn to tell stories? You need to play in — and eventually serve as DM/GM/Storyteller for — a roleplaying game session. It will tell you so much about how to set up the plot but to let the characters tell the story, it will tell you so much about not forcing things, it will teach you so much about how to keep people’s attention and what it means to thrill them or betray the intentions of the narrative. And it’s so awesome that D&D is a legit component to the story, not just as a nostalgic eye-wink but as a literal plot and character connection to the story. RPGs demand their day in the sun.
10. The ending to Stranger Things wraps almost everything up. This is key! It’s something too few shows do, now. Some have described Stranger Things ending on a cliffhanger, but a cliffhanger is where the whole plot stops and you think it’s gone over the cliff. This show wraps… pretty much everything up, and it leaves a few hanging threads that the show could either grab in S2, or it could… not. It’s the right mix. Leave us satisfied with the answer, but lay a few more questions out on the table oh-so-casually, as if it’s just a plate of cookies. Take a cookie or don’t, up to you — the dinner was still delicious.